For most of my life, my preferred creative medium was writing. But around the time I moved back the part of Illinois where I grew up—a rural area known as Forgottonia–I realized I was better able to convey what I wanted to say about rural isolation and decay in photographs than in words.

My ancestors first settled in west central Illinois in the 1850s. I grew up here, moved back in my late 20s, and traverse the area frequently for work, including a lengthy daily commute. The 16-county region of former military tract land between Illinois and Mississippi Rivers was christened Forgottonia in the late 1960s, when activists sought to call attention to the inequities in state and federal funding that contributed to the region’s poverty and infrastructure problems. Some things have improved since then, some haven’t, and some seem to be worse.

But Forgottonia has more of an emotional meaning than a political one for me. The word evokes the resilience and poetic hard luck of both the region and the generations of my family who have lived here. It’s also a reminder, to me, of the contrast between what the region was in the nineteenth century—when the loamy soil and seemingly limitless opportunity drew many to the prairie—and what it is now.

I am compelled to capture images that mirror the wistfulness of the word Forgottonia, the falling-down barns and abandoned houses that pepper the back roads (and highways) of the region. Of course, small towns being small towns, I get some negative feedback for that. Why are your photos so sad? Why don’t you ever photograph anything that has a fresh coat of paint?  But where others see ruin, I see persistence. Where there’s decay, I see the passage of time. When morning glories bloom in the rotted wood of an abandoned Italianate mansion rising up out of nowhere on a gravel road, and light filters perfectly through the battered slats of an old corn crib, I see a bit of myself, and my family, and all those who’ve made their lives here.

~ Jane Carlson


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Jane Carlson works in public radio and is a freelance writer and photographer. Her photography has been featured in Midwestern  Gothic,  Ninth Letter,  Mysterious Heartland,  and other publications. Her work is online at